Sir Terry Wogan
Walking past Wogan House in Central London the other day I was minded to remember a quote that Chris Evans had mentioned on several occasions in the past given to him by broadcasting legend Terry Wogan.
Chris Evans at the memorial service for Sir Terry Wogan
Evans recalls lunch at Terry's house followed by golf and a discussion about prep for the next day's show. Speaking at Terry's memorial service Evans recalls asking Wogan if he prepares "a little bit". Terry looked at him and said "It's very simple. They either like you or they don't". Chris continued "Of course he was exactly right".
Over the years I have been responsible for providing and creating production for three national and over fifty local radio breakfast shows. Breakfast production, in terms of imaging and sweepers, works well when it is there to complement the talent, a tool used to evoke excitement, explain things in a creative manner and package features - and the dreaded word 'benchmark'.
A benchmark is a feature that appears every day at the same time. We have all heard these in many different guises. It could be the mystery voice, win a grand, celebrity birthdays etc. There is of course merit in all these benchmarks and they have their place. Once upon a time I was a short distance away from a breakfast show but responsible for providing the production. This show wasn't going well, little chemistry, jolty and awkward links, jokes attempted and often failed. Rajar listening figures were ok, average, not inspiring.
We were told that the answer to the problems of the show was simple. Add in more benchmarks, showcase the talent. Now let me be clear, the talent was great, just in the wrong place and on the wrong show.
Benchmarks were developed, production commissioned, late nights for all. Tweak here, tweak there. "let's change that music, its not breakfast enough".
Now, it's September, children back to school and a typical reset point for radio. A mini show relaunch, but don't call it that. We now see a breakfast show clock with three big imposing benchmarks per hour, most requiring listener interaction and the rest needing a great deal of preparation from the team - not the talent.
Credit is due, everybody worked hard, there was a real will to make this work. Then some problems, not many listeners called in and they really were needed to make this work. So here the problems multiply. Of course you can use fake callers as long as there is no winning of prizes involved, but this is more work for the production team and when the talent discovers this, it's a vote of no confidence and a moment of second guessing.
Inquests happen, "let's change the music", "we can pre record it and edit all the best bits to make it more fun". In these meetings my mind always goes back to the great Sir Terry. "They either like you or they don't".
King of breakfast radio, Terry would rock up a few minutes before going on air after his journey to the now named Wogan House. He would open the mic and be himself. Warm, witty, engaging, funny, smart, empathetic. Now, let's go through the benchmarks, well there was, and still is, Thought for the Day........ That's it, a guest at 9.15. Of course Terry would talk to newsreaders, travel presenters and the legendary 9.30 handover to Ken Bruce but in terms of giving him tools to 'make him shine' this really was pointless. Terry would shine by being himself, being loved by listeners and genuinely sounding like he cared about each and every one of them.
I am not against benchmarks, if I was I would be doing myself out of a job. They can work brilliantly as a tool to enhance but let's look at some of today's greatest talent. Chris Evans on Virgin Radio, yes there is stuff going on but Evans's biggest skill, being himself. Moyles on Radio X, there are benchmarks here and there but again it's him and his team interaction that listeners love. Tim Lihoreau on Classic FM Breakfast, listeners adore his warm and genuine style and incredible musical knowledge.
If you are in the process of developing a new benchmark or being told to make the talent funnier here are a few points to consider:
Enhancement - By adding in this benchmark are we improving what was there before?
Timings - Does the listener have the space or the aptitude for engagement in this slot?
Performance - How will this new benchmark make my presenter sound better, brighter, funnier, more engaged?
Takeout - Will it drive new listeners or create talkability - the water cooler moment?
Refine - Less is more, have you over produced it, created it for other 'radio' people?
Will it last? - A revolving door of benchmarks means - its not a benchmark!
Great radio presenters come in all shapes and sizes and, as producers, it is our job to provide audio elements and tools to help them shine. That is the key though, tools that help.
Nothing you give to a radio presenter will make them shine. It is always the skill and engagement generated by the talent that listeners come to love. However clever your twenty five step breakfast benchmark is, with it's three hundred plus elements, it is the execution by the talent that will make it work. Producers should always remain humble and consider who is delivering their work and most importantly, who will be hearing it.
Sir Terry Wogan 1938 - 2016
An outstanding broadcasting career built on being himself. As he said "they either like you or they don't". As a nation we did and still remember a lovely caring man and a communicator extraordinaire.